Monday, January 2, 2012

Questing Carolina -- Searching For (and Finding) the Perfect Barbecue

Writing about barbecue is like writing about religion:  no matter how unitarian your embrace of all forms of smoked protein, no matter how pantheistic your remarks on the virtues of tomato and vinegar-based sauces, your views will deeply offend someone's barbecue orthodoxy.  You will be labeled a heretic.  Called out for apostasy.  Pelted with binary stones for culinary blasphemy.  Because barbecue is not merely some form of cuisine, nor is it simply some ancient cooking method perfectly suited for breaking down proteins, melting fat, and imparting the flavor of smoke.  No, barbecue is, for some, a way of life.  So let me say I adore all the high parishes and priests of the barbecue world.  Kansas City.  Memphis.  Texas.  Cows.  Pigs.  Yard birds.  Each and all have a special place in my heart.  But it's Carolina barbecue, specifically eastern Carolina pig, with its exquisite sauce of hot and tangy vinegar, that keeps this eater up nights, my dreams of pork shoulder borne up on imaginary whiffs of hickory smoke.

My mission was simple:  eat barbecue twice over two days in eastern North Carolina.  The only rule:  recommendations on where to eat cannot be culled from self-proclaimed "expert" internet sources, but must come from the mouths of locals in purely anecdotal form.  Sounds simple, right?  I knew from earlier trips through the Carolinas that the sheer ubiquity of barbecue is in no way a guarantee of quality pig.  Like all places hallowed for a specific culinary thing, the Carolinas have their share of culinary grifters and flim-flam men all too happy to peddle sub-par pig to any poor sucker with out-of-state plates.

First stop was the truly marvelous Bar-B-Que House Restaurant in the coastal town of Oak Island, North Carolina.  Situated in the extreme south-eastern corner of the state and literally a stone's throw from the Oak Island barrier beach, Bar-B-Que House first appeared as one of those sand-front food establishments I'm so deeply leery of; the kind of place that could easily be ignored by the 6,500 Oak Island locals, but kept flush by the nearly 50,000 sun-loving tourists that flock to the island in the summer months.  The kind of place that could offer little more than deep-fried sewer rat and still keep its ownership in an unending succession of Cadillac SUVs.  And yet every local I spoke with in Oak Island and neighboring Southport insisted Bar-B-Que House was the real deal.  So on a bleak winter weekday afternoon (nothing quite kills a lunch rush like weather) I ventured in and was nothing short of astonished at what I found.

The place was packed.  And loud.  One might even say rowdy.  What had just happened, I wondered?  Was I suddenly no longer in the staid and sleepy South? Did I just unwittingly step through a magical door and somehow end up in South Boston following a Red Sox game?  No, the signs and signifiers of the old South were very much represented.  Cammo vests.  Clasp knives on belts.  Hats adorned with the Stars and Bars. These were all true Southern locals, my kind of culinary people, and they were all clearly juiced on the kind of high that only sweet tea and barbecued pig can produce.  So I sat in a booth and ordered from my delightful server the epic Grand Daddy Combo Platter (that's three meat choices for you keeping score at home) of chopped pork, pork ribs, and smoked chicken.  Accompanying this carnage were four sides:  red slaw, collard greens, hush puppies with honey butter, and what turned out to be the  piece de resistance, the deep fried corn on the cob.

No sooner had my food arrived that I beheld what for me was a truly astonishing sight.  At my table were all three varieties of Carolina barbecue sauce. I realize that most barbecue newbies will fail to recognize this as the kind of culinary apocalypse, the gastronomic big one, that, to barbecue aficionados this surely must represent.  To explain:  when one enters the Carolina barbecue world as an aspiring aficionado, a self-annointed expert, one is asked, implicitly, to pick a favorite, to choose sides, to swear unwavering allegiance to one of the three Carolina-style sauces pictured left:  Lexington (cider vinegar), Eastern (cider vinegar with more heat), or South Carolia-style (vinegar and mustard).  And once you pick a sauce style, you must defend it tooth-and-nail to the bitter, bitter end.  Think of barbecue culture like a bad prison movie:  chose your homeboys, chose your inside gang, or be left out in the prison yard like buzzard food.  Me, I'm devotedly an Eastern sauce kind of guy, but I was secretly delighted--even thrilled--to see all three styles represented.  It was an act of culinary daring, (imagine the fate of the jailbird foolish enough to ask the Nazi ganglord just why can't everyone just simply get along) and just when I was sure no one was looking, I sauced my food with all three.  The pork ribs were fantastic: pink with wood smoke and falling off the bone.  The chicken was good, a solid, solid offering.  But the chopped pork was truly magnificent.  Almost as good as Carolina pork gets.  And a true show stopper.  Or nearly.

Because once I had dispatched the meat, I moved on to the sides.  The red slaw was made of finely chopped cabbage and flavored with a perfect balance of vinegar and catsup.  The collards contained enough bacon to be considered a pork dish.  But the deep fried corn on the cob was transcendental--boiled, no doubt, before being deep fried.  What emerged from the fryer was corn no longer.  What had started out as corn had come out as caramelized golden goodness.  Something you offer to the spirits of the dead as the best of what we mere mortals can produce.

After a meal like this, dessert is a non starter.  A no go.  All of the available internal real estate has been used up.  As in:  no vacancies, dude.  But something told me to order the cobbler and the banana pudding.  While the cobbler was quite tasty, it was the pudding that blew me away.  It was nothing like anything I had ever tasted.  It resembled pudding in almost no way.  So I asked the manager for the recipe and was told it's a closely guarded secret.  If I had to guess, the pudding was a delightfully baffling mixture of sliced bananas, sour cream, Cool Whip, and powdered vanilla pudding.  But Whatever is in the stuff, the banana pudding was pure sugary magic and I ate every last bite.

As with any truly great restaurant experience, I was strangely sad when the meal was over and the check delivered.  I simply wanted to keep eating all afternoon long.  But we know that's not how it works, especially with barbecue.  One must quite while one's ahead and simply walk away.  But as I paid my bill and picked my teeth, I knew with absolute certainty that dish for dish, pig for chicken, sauce for sides, my meal at Bar-B-Que House was the best barbecue restaurant experience I've yet to have.  Bar-B-Que house has got it down.  And they reign supreme.  I'll be back to lovely Oak Island, my Bar-B-Que House friends, and I'll be ordering the Grand Daddy Platter.  Just please don't tell anyone about the sauce.  My Eastern-sauce homeboys will surely shank me.

Stop two on my Carolina quest took me to Wilber's Barbecue in Goldsboro, North Carolina, roughly two hours northwest of Oak Island and in the porcine heart of barbecue country.  Wilber's sits at the edge of Goldsboro and is far enough off the beaten culinary path that the curious stares I received upon entering reminded me, small-town Missouri boy I am, of how effectively a well-timed glower can make a well-meaning out-of-town visitor feel like an unwanted outsider.  Perhaps there would be little love for me here at Wilber's, I thought, but isn't that what questing is all about?  Surmounting the stones in one's pathway?  Keeping the hellhounds off one's own trail?  Every great ancient myth surely reminds us of one thing:  the greater the obstacle, the greater the reward.  So I sallied forth, humming a Robert Johnson tune the whole way.

Wilber's Barbecue is vast and very nearly the size of a German beer hall.  On the late-afternoon, post-lunch rush occasion of my visit, it was still crowded, in sections, with the kind of locals one finds only in North Carolina, the kind who don't smile, even when tickled.  Southern hospitality might very well have stopped outside Wilber's door, but I remained undaunted.  Until I met my waitress.

As luck would have it, I had for my waitress an elderly Asian woman from an indeterminate country of origin, who sat next to me at my table, leaned in close, shoulder to shoulder, with fish oil on her breath, and who seemed to be learning English from what she could glean from Wilber's luncheon menus.  Poor lady.  The menu itself was strangely limited.  In its English.  In its culinary destinations.  It did offer a few essential and expected proteins (pig, chicken livers and gizzards, oysters, Brunswick stew) and the usual sides of greens, potato salad, and cole slaw.  Everything about the menu seemed to point in one direction only: pig.  So I ordered just that, chopped pork paired with roast chicken.  My sides would be green beens, hushpuppies, and slaw.  My tea would be sweet enough to induce Type II diabetes (not to mention rendering my vinyl table cloth sticky as fly paper).   I had ordered unsweet tea, but hey, the devil is in the details, and may not always speak English.

My food arrived just in time.  My fellow luncheoneers kept shooting me the Carolina stink eye, and I wasn't exactly made to feel welcome there, though only now do I realize that a VW driving, yuppie uberdouche from D.C. intent on photographing everything he sees or eats with a white iPhone deserves every nasty look he takes on the chin.  I smiled at my food and tasted my sides first:  the slaw was made from finely chopped cabbage, mayo, vinegar, and something (likely food coloring) that had turned it an iridescent green, and the green beans were unevenly cut and full of vine stems--good things, really, that indicate someone actually cooked this food on site instead of simply warming a can of foodstuff from food-devil Cisco.  Next I tasted the chicken.  It was perfectly roasted and tender and topped with a yellowish-orange gravy that seemed to be made of poultry pan drippings and cider vinegar.  The gravy was strange and rich and good.  All of Wilber's food was good, actually.  Really good.  Especially the gravy.

Lastly, I tasted the chopped pork.  I don't know what made me eat it last, or why the culinary cosmos would speak to me in such strange and unexpected ways.  But Wilber's chopped pork was, without question, the best chopped pork I've ever put in my mouth.  THE.  BEST.  EVER.  This is not hyperbole, folks.  This is not some jerk-off food blogger correcting an otherwise questionable food experience by writing false epiphany into an untrue happy ending.  No, this was it.  This was the best barbecue of my life.  The best and most perfectly seasoned pork dish I've ever eaten.  The most perfectly smoked piece of meat I'd ever put my mouth.  More telling perhaps:  Wilber's was the only chopped pork I've ever come across that made me know that saucing the meat would be an act of self-sabatage and a crime against all that was holy and good in the world.  How could this be possible, I wondered?  How could such an idiosyncratic place like Wilber's produce something so delicious, so truly amazing, that it would make me want to sing its praises from high atop the binary mountaintop to whomever could be troubled to listen?

I waved my elderly Asian waitress over and asked her the same question.  She smiled with perfect understanding.

"More sweet tea," she said.  "Coming right up."

I paid my bill, bought some of Wilber's bottled sauce, and rushed outside to follow a sudden impulse.  This impulse took me all the way behind Wilber's Barbecue and to a gravel lot between the restaurant and an adjacent cornfield.  There it was, dear readers.  There was my answer.  And in a great halo of hickory smoke.  There was the great barbecue oracle foretelling all things truly great about Wilber's pork had I only the insight to investigate its tellings before sitting down to eat.

It was Wilber's smokehouse.  It's where the magic happened.  The Mount Olympus where the barbecue gods lurked.  And I was awestruck.  I was truly amazed.  I had found the holy barbecue grail. At Wilber's no less.

Your link to Bar-B-Que House:
The Bar B Que House - Best BBQ on the Beach

Your link to Wilber's Barbecue:

Barbecue, Wilber's Barbecue Home

And love them both for what they truly are: culinary treasures.


  1. Thanks for the kind words about the Bar-B-Que House! I look forward to waiting on you again! It was a lot of fun :)